Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018: Maximum Shelf: The Broken Girls

Berkley Books: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Berkley Books: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Berkley Books: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Berkley Books: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls

by Simone St. James

Simone St. James's The Broken Girls opens with a disquieting scene set in 1950. A teenager is apparently being chased by a ghostlike menace as she runs through the woods toward Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for girls. The prologue ends with the girl looking into the darkness and screaming.

Cut to November 2014. Fiona Sheridan, a reporter whose murdered sister's body was found on the grounds of the abandoned Idlewild 20 years earlier, investigates why a benefactor with no apparent ties to the school has bought it with intentions of reopening it. Fiona has spent her career writing puff pieces, purposefully avoiding comparisons to her father, the legendary journalist Malcolm Sheridan, but she can't stay away from a chance to look more deeply into her sister Deb's murder.

The case was solved two decades ago with the conviction of local golden boy Tim Christopher, who comes from a wealthy family and was dating Deb, but Fiona has a feeling there's much about the case she still doesn't know. This is confirmed when she discovers a witness statement that seems to give Tim an alibi on the day of the murder. Why wasn't that ever made public or used by the defense? Is it possible the police put the wrong man in prison? Fiona also stumbles upon another murder tied to Idlewild. Oh, and the school might be haunted. How is all of this tied to Deb's death and Idlewild's possible reopening?

To complicate matters further, Garrett Creel Jr., the cop who headed up the original investigation into Deb's murder, is the father of Fiona's lover, Jamie, himself a cop. Garrett may be officially retired, but remains determined to control the narrative of events, both past and present. Jamie's eager to have Fiona meet his parents, but Fiona is less interested in making polite conversation with the former chief of police than challenging him to get to the bottom of what really happened to her sister.

Fiona is the contemporary heroine, but in 1950, there are four protagonists: Katie, Roberta, CeCe and Sonia, all residents of Idlewild, each with chapters told from her point of view. They have disparate backgrounds but all fit neatly into the categories of students the school accepts. "Idlewild was the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. Hidden in the backwoods of Vermont, it had only 120 students: illegitimate daughters, first wives' daughters, servants' daughters, immigrant girls, girls who misbehaved or couldn’t learn."

Katie is the headstrong, beautiful one whose lead everyone follows; Roberta the athletic hockey player; CeCe the illegitimate child of a rich married man; and Sonia the French girl with a mysterious past who seems triggered by blood and violence.

The Broken Girls alternates among the different narrators and the past and present. The connecting tissues are Idlewild and its resident ghost, Mary Hand, who terrorizes people by showing them their worst fears. Legend has it that "Mary Hand died when she was locked out of the school on a winter night and lost her way." The personalization of the horror to each person she haunts takes Mary to a higher level of creepy than the average ghost. "Katie had thought she understood fear until that moment but when the voice had spoken, she'd understood fear that was older and bigger than she could imagine." Mary Hand, dressed entirely in black with a veil covering her face, "begs girls to come outside and follow her, but if you do it, you die."

Of all the girls' stories, Sonia's resonates the most. When Fiona tries to track down the former Idlewild residents to see if any is still alive, she finds an astonishing lack of records about the real historical events surrounding Sonia's tragic past. With her rendition, St. James makes the reader want to do further research on the place and people that time forgot.

Another noteworthy aspect of The Broken Girls is the bond among the girls and their resiliency. One might expect a group of teenage girls from different backgrounds sharing the same room to engage in catfights and backstabbing, but St. James creates deeper and more complex relationships for her characters. Katie, Roberta, CeCe and Sonia may not always understand or agree with one another, but each protects the others with affecting loyalty. And though they have rarely met Lady Luck, none wallows in self-pity, instead figuring how to make the best of their circumstances.

Likewise, Fiona's life has been struck by tragedy and grief, but she comes to learn the only way to make peace and move on is to confront her past head-on, not run away from it. She finds strength along the way from unexpected allies, other women who not only survived difficult times but have thrived by refusing to be broken. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9780451476203, March 20, 2018

Berkley Books: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Simone St. James: Fear Is Universal

photo: Adam Hunter

When Simone St. James couldn't find the kind of books she wanted to read--romantic gothic ghost stories--she decided to write them. Hence The Haunting of Maddy Claire, and St. James's career as a novelist was launched. The book won two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America and Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award. St. James has continued to write ghost stories, and lives outside Toronto, Canada, with her husband and rescue cat. The Broken Girls, set at a girls school in Vermont, is her sixth novel.

Your previous novels have been set in the 1920s, but half of The Broken Girls is set in 1950. Why the change? What specifically about that time period makes it ideal for the story?

I wrote five books set in 1920s England, and while I loved writing them, I felt I had done what I wanted with that time period. Michael Connelly once said that you have to write like a shark, you have to keep moving. I never planned on writing one time period for my whole career, and my publisher agreed with me.

As for 1950, without giving anything away, I needed the historical section of the book to be set not too far past the end of World War II. I'd also been itching to set a book in the U.S. instead of the U.K. I got my wish!

Though your protagonist Fiona's life and opportunities are different from that of the Idlewild school girls, how would you say they're similar? It seems even when things change, many conventions remain the same over time, especially for women.

One of the themes of the book is that even over spans of time, women are still women. Women have specific struggles, but women also have deep-rooted strength to meet their struggles. They have survival tactics. They have strong will. At the beginning of the book, Fiona has been trapped in grief for 20 years, but she still feels the urge to keep going, to move forward, to get up even when she's down. It's that urge that women have demonstrated through all of history.

A ghost named Mary Hand reveals something personal and terrifying to each person she appears to in The Broken Girls. What would she show you?

I'm scared of a lot of things; it's why I write scary books. I figure if something scares me, there's a chance it will scare a reader, too. I loathe the idea of SCUBA diving, for example. I'm glad other people enjoy it, but I never could. I find the idea of voluntarily being underwater entirely creepy, and you don't know what's down there! I've been variously scared of my basement, my garden shed, the woods, empty rooms and dark alleys. See, Mary Hand would have an easy time with me! 

Why do you like being scared, as a writer and reader?

Fear is a universal human emotion. We all feel it, and it isn't just fear of ghosts. It's the fear we feel when our child goes off to their first day of school, or when we find that mysterious lump, or when someone we love isn't answering their phone. Fiction helps us explore and map our way through it, because feeling fear is only half the experience. The other half is facing it. In a way, that's sort of what every ghost story is about, at least in my view.

You started writing romantic gothic ghost stories because you couldn't find them as a reader. What other kinds of books can't you find that you'd like to write?

Hopefully no others! I'm a one-woman genre already. But I am a voracious reader. I'll read anything. I love to read romance. That genre is on a huge creative wave right now; it's exciting to see. I love mysteries and thrillers and any kind of nonfiction. I think the most exciting books cross genres, mix literary and genre together and sort of defy definition. Which makes those books hard for publishers to market, but fun for writers and for the readers who discover them.

If you were from the future and writing a historical novel about 2017, what and who would your book be about?

Wow, tough one! I don't think I'd tackle any big historical figures. I'm not very good at that. I'd probably still write about everyday women, because that's where my creativity tends to go. I have a fascination for abandoned places: houses, hospitals, schools, theaters. There are tons of abandoned buildings around, and every one of them tells a story. There's never a shortage of ideas if you know how to look! --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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